The Fell Gard Codices

 

With the answer given and Gamelyn again normal, the mortals debated what to do next. Enheduanna watched them, but could not stop thinking of the Iron Elf. She should have thrown herself through the portal. Surely she could have dealt with whatever was on the other side. And these mortals were so slow. But now … now, she did not know how to open the portal. Her instincts had led her to cast her lot with mortals, slow, simple and small as they were. Had she erred?

Enheduanna pictured the Iron Elf to herself. She wondered if she knew him from a time before her birth. Almost she could remember his face, from some other life. Had he killed her, then, or she him? Or had they been brother and sister, once? The curse of the elf-folk: the inconstancy of memory.

Gryselde spoke to the sylph, whose name, it turned out, was Aura. Like all sylphs, she had translucent wings, but otherwise seemed a doll-like mortal, fine-featured, with silver hair and utterly white skin. Enheduanna tried to remember: what did she know about elementals? Had her parents taught her something she could now no longer recall, lacking as she did all memories of them?

Aura claimed to have been summoned by the wizard Scaeva, and assigned to moving air in the dungeon halls. Her voice was bright and happy. She had not seen the wizard; she and her sisters had been placed at once into their chamber, with their slave, the mask elemental that they had broken to their wills. Enheduanna remembered — from where? — that elementals of different kinds were frequently at war. Aura said that they had noticed only two other breathing creatures in the area around her her rooms, one to the north and west, the other to the south.

“Do you still want to travel with us?” asked the sorine.

“I want nothing, my lady,” said the sylph immediately. “Except to do as you command.”

“You do not mourn the death of your sisters,” Gryselde observed.

Gamelyn snorted. “She’s an elemental,” he said. “Not a mortal woman.” The sorine was silent, pondering.

“We could take Ulric back to the others, and then return to explore further,” said William.

“I would go on with you,” said Ulric. “I may not be able to fight; but I still can heal. And carry the caladrius, who also may heal.” The bird stirred slightly; then ducked its head back under a wing to sleep.

Gryselde nodded, and gave the torch to William. “How far from your chamber were these breathing things?” she asked the sylph.

“Oh, not far, my lady,” said Aura. “The southern one was closer.”

Gryselde sighed. “Very well, then,” she said. “We’ll go to find these creatures. You will travel by Ulric, and guard him, and be his eyes.”

“Yes, my lady,” said the sylph.

“You still insist that I am your liege?” Gryselde asked Aura.

“Elementals have a strict hierarchy,” said Enheduanna. “It has been known for one to transfer its loyalty to a mortal.”

“How have you heard this?” asked William. She shrugged.

“I remember it,” she said, “from somewhere.”

So Enheduanna led the way back to the elementals’ vault. They found a door to the west, and the hall beyond led to a door south, opening onto another hall; and then at the end of that hall was another door. They went slowly, for all these doors had to be examined by Ulixa before the mortals dared open them.  But behind that last door Enheduanna was surprised to find a cervidwen.

He was tall, eight feet or so; his antlers were a good two or three feet above that. He was at the far end of the bare stone chamber as they entered, and rose from a bedding of green leaves. Where did those come from? wondered Enheduanna, shocked and a little awed at finding one of the stag-men. “Wait,” she called, in the grunting tongue of the ceridven. “No evil meant. Please stay. Talk of the good.”

Gryselde moved up beside her. “What is it?” she whispered.

“One of the forest-lords,” said Enheduanna. “A cervidwen.”

He was dressed in roughly-stitched bearhide. His belt held large bone knives. His red-brown fur was spotted with white, a sign of youth, but his antlers were fully-developed and he watched them with caution but no fawnlike fear. He stood on two legs like an elf or mortal, but his head was a stag’s, and not well-shaped for mortal speech. As she took a cautious step forward he said to her in his own language: “Who?”

“Wanderers,” said Enheduanna. She took another careful step into the room. The cervidwen watched her. “Enheduanna,” she said, and then pointed to the others one by one, naming them as they entered after her. They did not advance into the room past her, fortunately; and the cervidwen, though he shifted uneasily, did not flee.

When she had done, he gave her his name, a bleating sound which could not be fitted into a mortal alphabet without losing all meaning, and asked, “A way from here is wanted, so where?”

“A way from here is being sought,” she said.

William asked her: “Enheduanna … how are you making those sounds?” She waved him to silence, and waited on the cervidwen, who was still. Finally, he sat cross-legged.

“Speech will be had,” he said.

She bowed to him. “It’s all right,” she said to the others. “He’ll talk to us. Though most of you should keep your distance. William …” She spoke to him as a nightingale. He seemed shocked. There is so little they know about me, she thought. “Elves speak all the languages of the forests,” she said. She sat before the cervidwen, and waved to Gryselde to sit behind her. The others remained by the north wall.

The forest-lord told them that he had been caught up in a mist and brought into the dungeon. He had established that chamber as part of his territory; it was close to his food, but at less of a risk from monsters. What food was that? A forest to the south, with many stairs near to it. A way led south from his room; a door also led east. Enheduanna questioned him closely regarding the rooms and what he knew of the dungeon.

At last, Gryselde had her ask if he wished to come with them. Enheduanna knew the answer before she asked it: the great horned head shook, a slow negative.  “He will be an ally,” she explained, “but it is not in his nature to join a herd, especially a mixed group of females and males.”

“Should I be insulted?” asked Ulixa.

Enheduanna stood. “It is with him as it is with most of us,” she said. “There is one’s own kind; and there are animals; and between those things are other speaking creatures, neither animals nor wholly of the folk.”

“Ah,” said William. She smiled on him.

“Although one may make exceptions,” she said.

She bade farewell to the cervidwen; and they set off exploring, eastward first. As the forest-lord had said, much of the area was empty. Still they found a few things, in the various rooms and halls. The other side of the locked door to the library. A kite-shaped shield with an emblem upon it of a manticore. A monk’s writing-desk in a hallway under a slowly-dripping stalactite. Once, in a room with a pit behind the door (the cervidwen had warned them of the trap, but they had to guide Ulric carefully around it), they thought they had found writing on a wall, obscured by a growth of grey fungi; but it turned out to be meaningless scribbles, so far as any of them could tell.

Once, behind her, Enheduanna heard Ulixa whisper: “Why do you do that?”

“What’s that?” asked Gamelyn.

“Lick your finger, and hold it up,” said Ulixa. “I see you do it at crossroads and doors. Why?”

“Oh, habit,” he said. “It’s lore in the dungeon that it’s good luck to do so. Though it’s the lore of those without letters.”

For some reason, she remembered this; the curiosity of Ulixa, the absent answer of Gamelyn. She could not say why, only that it had to do with how they were together, and what they understood of each other that she did not. How many signs had she herself seen the mortals make, and not asked after them?

They came to a flight of white marble stairs ten yards wide or more. Enheduanna could see they led down to a kind of porch, overlooking what seemed to be a crack in the earth. “Wait,” Gamelyn called to her in an urgent whisper as she began to descend. “Stairs are — stairs are dangerous. ‘For the lower you will walk, then the worse you will fear.’ Do not descend without need!”

“They end above a chasm,” said Enheduanna. “Come see. And I can smell water.” She led them down; but it turned out the stairs did not stop where she expected. Instead, there were other flights, at the sides, leading back to some other part of the dungeon. The porch, which was also of marble, was at one end of the great chasm, which stretched away southward far beyond sight and opened onto a space deeper than she could tell; a rough ceiling of rock was some distance above their heads. She could see other stairs, below and some distance away, connected in networks of white marble, and also the flicker of small waterfalls here and there.

“I know where we are,” said Gamelyn, surprised. “This is the Abyss of Stairs. Ha!” He looked at the others. “It happens, sometimes,” he said. “A new-created court extends some already-existing part of Fell Gard.”

“What can you tell us of this Abyss?” asked Gryselde.

“Ah,” said Gamelyn. “Not much, I’m afraid. It’s … well, as you see it, an abyss which many stairs touch, before turning back to wind deeper into the dungeon. Some of the stairs are connected by porticos and lesser stairways, so you can climb many levels at once, if you should wish to. I’d heard of it, but not seen it before.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Ulixa, running her hand over the balustrade. “Ulric, you can’t see it, but the marble is flawless, and the carving of the rail is subtle, and it is curved just so, like the work of the Archons or the Invicti. There are statues above the rails, of armoured men and women, and gargoyles, and suchlike.”

“Are there many named parts of the dungeon?” Gryselde asked Gamelyn.

“The dungeon is full of speaking creatures,” he said, “so it is filled with names.”

While they spoke, Enheduanna looked along the stairways to either side, which ran downward and at an angle back into the wall of the Abyss. She saw a light, down both of them; they both led to the same end — a cave? They did not go far; not as far as the other stairs they’d found in the dungeon. The light from the cave was a turquoise-green. She found she did not like it. Was it a memory, or an instinct?

“Wait here,” she told the others. “I’ll scout a little further on.” They did not seem to like this idea, but she slipped away from them before they could say more than a word or two. Why? She thought, maybe, it was the light. It seemed to hint at some fear or half-hidden thought. Some mystery whose answer she did not remember, but had to know again.

The cave into which the stairs entered was vast; hundreds of feet across, the floor like a bowl and the roof irregular, both of them covered in jagged projections. It smelled of bat droppings and of rot and of sulphur. The air had a tension; the hairs of her flesh stood on end. The light she had seen from the stairs came from the centre of the cavern. As she drew closer she saw its source was a giant unblinking cat’s eye, a swollen orb set in the ceiling above the lowest part of the cave floor, where the ground was flat and free of standing stone. In that clear space moved many shadows.

She slipped from stalagmite to stalagmite, drawing closer to the centre. She paused when she found a clear view of the scene. There were several dozen small manlike forms in the depression at the cave’s heart, all of them cloaked in brown or black or grey wrappings. They were watched by a man on a throne; or no, she thought, not a man, though it was like a pale mortal man with overlarge eyes. It was not defined as a man was; you could not say wholly where it ended. It sat on a throne of purple-and-black quartz, covered with hides. Beside it were distorted things, the height of an elf but with grotesque toadlike heads, huge and impossible, their mouths overlarge even for those heads and lined with sharp teeth.

The three creatures watched the smaller things in the depression, which Enheduanna realised were performing some kind of show or ritual; their movements precise, almost formal, yet also depraved. They tore at each other and ate each other, they violated each other, they performed every kind of degradation of the body that was possible one upon another. And all these things were half-hidden under their cloaks, so as to suggest that still they had a sense of shame, still they felt that these rites were to be secret.

Enheduanna began to move away. As she did, the creature on the throne looked up. It saw her, she was sure, and yet made no sign. Only its eyes caught her for a moment, those large white eyes, with no colour but the midnight black of the pupils. They were like eyes you might find in a dream.

She froze, unable to look away; but then it turned from her, as though with great weariness, and, somehow saddened, feeling an obscure sense of guilt, and in no way understanding what she had seen, she slipped away, back to the others.

“Don’t do that,” said Gamelyn at once when she’d returned. “Don’t, do not. Don’t divide forces. Do not go down stairs when you do not need to. Do not.” He paused. “What’d you see?”

She tried to tell them. She couldn’t really explain. She did not wish to say all that she had seen the little manlike things do; she could not describe how the cave had felt, as if it were wrong in every way, a place not to be in. Mostly she could not describe what she had seen in the eyes of the thing on the throne. A melancholy? No. Or maybe, but his or hers she could not say. A pull, a call? Still not quite. It was, she decided to herself, as if she had seen in him every old dream she could no longer remember.

“These little men,” said Gamelyn, “did they look like this?” He moved his hands one over another, and said a charm. A little man stood on his hand; not like the ones that she had seen, though. She shook her head. “Or this?” he asked, with another pass of his hand. The shape standing on his palm changed to another manlike form. “Or this?” And again it was different. He changed the shape again, and again, and on until one of the creatures she had seen appeared on his hand and she stopped him. “Darklings,” said Gamelyn. “They’re sneaky, silent creatures that prefer a stab in the back to open greetings. In fact it’s not clear if they’re true speaking creatures; they seem to have a language of hisses and whispers that no-one else can decipher. They’re often led by a nightjack. Like this?”

“Yes,” said Enheduanna, staring at Gamelyn’s palm, where something very near the creature she had seen on the throne now stood.

“Well, jacks come in many guises,” said Gamelyn.

“We know of jacks,” said William. “The closest to mortals of all things with magic in their marrow. I know tales of firejacks, of jack frost, of jack-an-apes and many more.”

“The nightjack is a jack of dream,” said Gamelyn. “Myself, I’ve heard very little about them. They’re close-mouthed, you see. But the other things you saw, the toad-men … like this? No? Hmm. This? Yes? Ah. Those are demons called toadeaters. They’re terrible flatterers, who love to attach themselves to powerful leaders, and provoke them into excesses of pride.”

“The cave,” said Enheduanna. “It felt like — a little like that wicked temple, of the priest of Urizen.” It didn’t; but it was as close as she could find words for.

“We have no need to venture there,” said Gryselde. “I think in fact it is time to return up the stairs, and find the gardens your forest-lord spoke of.”

Which they did; and the gardens, a little further south and west, were more than they might have expected.

There were five rooms, opening one into another, each of them large; one as much as twenty yards by fifteen, with a ceiling maybe a full hundred feet from the floor. And each room was filled with trees, so that they seemed to hold a silent moonlit forest. Enheduanna saw bats flitting among high branches. Grass was underfoot, and here and there some shrubbery; low boxwood, and such. The smell was wonderful, fir mixing with apple and many others. Branches were bent under the weight of apples and plums and cherries. But she was surprised, when they had all entered the largest room, by William and Gryselde: they both of them gasped aloud, and also Ulixa seemed startled.

William sang:

 

The holly tree, its berries ripe,

And oak in greenest leaf

They will be once together seen,

A sign against misbelief.

 

He looked embarrassed. “That is the ballad form,” he said. “More properly:

 

The high holly, holding berries,

The great oak, green its leaves;

To present a sign, a proof of faith,

In company close discovered but once.”

 

His voice was not as Enheduanna had ever heard it. As though it carried a secret, and meditated upon that secret at once.

There was a kind of clearing among the trees in that chamber, Enheduanna saw. At one end an oak towered almost to the high ceiling, covered in the thick greenery of midsummer. At the other was a pyramidal holly with bright red berries. Many other trees were all around the clearing, maple and ash and elm. Gryselde walked toward the clearing as though in a trance.

“I had never dreamed,” said William.

“Who had?” replied the sorine. She stopped in the heart of the clearing, and turned from holly to oak and back. Ulixa shook her head.

“Is this important?” asked Gamelyn. Gryselde did not answer.

Enheduanna wondered if she should know this, what it meant.

“Oak and Holly,” said William. “Do you under the earth not know their courts?” Gamelyn raised his eyebrows, and shook his head. “Well,” said William. “They are the courts in which the Gods arrange themselves, who shape the wanderings of the moons and all the planets. And every other thing on the earth or under it, though they may not know it.”

“Ah,” said Gamelyn. “Now these courts — would I be wrong to ask if they were above or below the courts of Fell Gard?”

“They are the courts of the King of Oak and his Queen Mistel, and of the Queen of Holly and her husband Yven,” said William. “And the one has half the year, and the other the other half.”

“They wouldn’t have trees under the earth, or not many,” said Ulixa. “And I wonder how much a year matters, here.” William looked at her, almost shocked. “You should remember,” she said, “I was not raised to worship Oak and Holly either.”

“I had not … considered that,” he said.

“There are other guides to right behaviour,” she said. “Or so many believe.”

He took a breath. “I will not discuss that now,” he said, looking away. Gryselde showed no sign of having heard any of this. Enheduanna left them to their sign, and went to explore the rest of the forest.

In some places she found among the roots of the trees small springs, hardly more than puddles. She found also several halls leading away eastward from the forest rooms. One, the southernmost, led to a closed door. The four others, all in the great room with the oak and holly trees, all ended in flights of white marble stairs leading down.

Enheduanna walked a little way down one of the stairways. As she had thought, it ended at the Abyss of Stairs.

She thought of how different the mortals were. They did not think like her, not always. Why should they? They lived a different cycle. Their bodies were different; they could not see in darkness. But she was with them, now. She had made her choice.

Or had she?

Enheduanna gazed into the Abyss of Stairs. She could set off on her own, she realised. Gamelyn and Yune had both survived deeper in the dungeon. Surely she could manage as well.

Enheduanna saw it, in her mind. Run down the stairs. Hide until she had found some trace of the Iron Elf. Or would he find her? The thought disquieted her. How long had he been monitoring her? Was he watching her even now, from deeper in the Abyss?

She had to know. She had to find him. To demand of him who he was; what he had to do with her, with her family. And the mortals were so very slow. They did not understand, with their slow freighted signs whose meanings had to be unpacked; they did not know how quickly life slipped away. She had less than eleven months to find her prey, to learn what she needed, and to make her way out of the dungeon.

If she wanted to accomplish all these things before she died, how could she do it in the company of mortals?

She thought of what she could not remember. She drew her sword. She could not now remember how she had come by it, or by her armour. She knew therefore that they had been given her by her parents. Her mother and father; who had they been? She had given them up, and that for the sake of those mortals. Would she do it again? Or was it better, perhaps, to let her current cycle end here, to begin again at some later time?

She thought of the eyes of the nightjack. She thought of the forest-lord, that would not join their strange herd. She thought of the Morien woman and the gamester of shadow. She thought of the Iron Elf.

Memories, dreams, reflections.

Would she remember all these things, in her next life?

What was keeping her there, really?

In the end she returned to find the mortals engaged in discussion. Gryselde was sighing as she approached. “We won’t investigate it now,” she said. “Instead we should find the other breathing creature Aura spoke of.”

“Good,” said Gamelyn. “There are stairs to the east. Best get away as soon as possible.”

“You misunderstand,” said Gryselde. “With holly in fruit and oak in greenest leaf together, this is where we must settle ourselves. Before we return to the others we must explore this area further, but before we do that I want to go back to the north to find the living thing Aura mentioned.”

“What?” shrieked Gamelyn. “Seek out a — settle by —”

Enheduanna smiled. She thought: That easily they have decided their quest is done; they can live quickly, when they wish it. She felt better, then, about what she had decided.

She watched William make a sign toward the clearing — setting his hands together, pointing out, at about the height of his navel, then raising them to almost the height of his face, where he moved them apart in curving motions. “What is that?” she asked. “I’ve seen you do that before. What does it mean?”

“Ah,” said William, “it is the Sign of Oak.” He put his hands together and raised them; “The trunk,” he said. He moved his hands apart, raising them in curving motions and lowering them; “The boughs. Then there’s the Lesser Sign.” He tucked the last two fingers of his right hand under his thumb, raised the hand with his first two fingers pressed close and pointing outward, then lowered his hand while dividing his first fingers.

Enheduanna smiled. She turned to the trees. She made the Sign of the Oak. William made a strange sound in his throat. “Did I do it wrong?” she asked.

“You are a wom — a lady,” he said. “You make the Sign of Holly.” She tilted her head.

“I think I have seen Gryselde make the Sign of Oak,” she said.

“She is a sorine,” William said. He looked over his shoulder, where the others were now waiting, Gamelyn having lost his argument with the sorine. William shifted, as though to hide what he was doing from them. Blushing, he moved his hands in what Enheduanna thought was an oval shape. “For the shape of the holly tree,” he said, nodding to the thick-branched tree in the clearing.

“Is that what it is?” asked Enheduanna, smiling. William shook his head.

“How do you mean?” he asked, hurt in his voice.

She reached out to him. He didn’t move. She caressed his arm. “We believe in the cycles of things,” she said. “We elves. It’s how I was … how I was raised. I suppose. All is cycle … we reach the heights, we reach the depths, and if we pass through the one we come in time to the other. And it is by our songs, by our speech, we find meaning in all the things through which we pass.”

“Enheduanna,” he said. He had a way of saying her name; the vowels pronounced separately and carefully, like separate jewels in the crown of her identity. “Enheduanna,” he repeated, “I wish I could understand you.”

She smiled upon him, and said only, “Thank you for showing me your signs.” The memory came to her of the nightjack in his theatre. And for a moment she was troubled by a thought of the Iron Elf, and of all dreams forgotten. She dismissed it. She had realised: she was happy. There, at that moment, with William of the Long Road. That, for the moment, was reason enough for her to be there.

And what of the future?

And what of the past she could no longer know?

She laughed, and turned to the clearing, and made the Sign of Holly.

 

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